Tag Archives: characters

Don’t Panic! — Writing About Anxiety

Panic -- Photo by ClaraDonWhen I was at a writing convention last year, I took part in a workshop designed to strengthen characterisation. We did a number of exercises in the workshop, many of them in small groups where we could discuss our characters and stories.

During one such exercise, we split into groups of three or four people and were instructed to share the pivotal dark moment of our novel; a turning point, where the protagonist has to face and overcome a major conflict.

One of the women in my group was writing a YA novel about a girl facing bullying at school. The scene she described went something like this:

The protagonist has to get on a school bus and everyone is mocking her and she has a panic attack. Then she sits down on the bus and doesn’t let the mean kids win.

As someone who has suffered anxiety attacks for most of my life, I had questions. Lots of them. Like, what triggered the attack? What happens while she’s having it? Has she had them before?

The author seemed bamboozled by my questions. Confused.

The other kids are making fun of her like normal, and she’s just had enough. So she has a panic attack and then decides not to put up with it anymore and just sits next to someone she doesn’t know.

I ask some more questions, but get the same information delivered in a variety of ways.The other two members of the group nod and smile and congratulate the author on using a panic attack as a form of conflict, because it’s so “original” and “unique” — and, one of them adds, fairly easy to write, because there’s no actual bad guy and the girl just has to stop panicking.

And I found myself wondering: Is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this scene is nonsensical?

Over the last few months, I’ve come to realise that most people don’t know what it’s actually like to experience a panic attack. Look up ‘panic attack’ on the internet, and you’ll find various websites that list symptoms like breathlessness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, light-headedness, weakness, dizziness, feeling of doom, nausea, intense fear, and depersonalization — plus plenty of other “less common” symptoms. Then there’s a note advising that “not everyone who experiences a panic attack experiences all of these symptoms”.

But it’s rare to find a description of what it actually feels like to experience a panic attack. Now, I’m not an expert on anxiety. But I’ve suffered through more panic attacks in my life than I care to count. (The first I clearly remember was when I was eight years old.) Allow me to share what it’s like to be in my head during one of these attacks.

Maybe it will help you in your writing. Maybe it will help you understand what someone close to you is experiencing. Maybe it will help you feel you’re not alone. Just keep in mind that not everyone experiences panic attacks in the same way. This is how I experience them.

(If you suffer from panic attacks, please consider whether you wish to read further.)


These clothes need to be washed by hand. Whose idea was it to volunteer for this job, anyway?

I turn on the tap and let the water run for a bit before I put in the plug. The kids are in the next room. I can hear them playing, giggling and laughing. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be arguing again and I’ll have to go intervene. I have to hurry. I have to get this washing done.

The water splashes into the tub, filling it up far too slowly. The rush of water, drops spattering on the sides, the harsh sound of water against metal. It echoes off the walls, drowning out other sounds. I can’t hear the kids now. Why did I volunteer for this? Why am I washing these clothes? This isn’t my job. I can’t–

I can’t do it.

The water is too loud. Everything is too loud. I need to turn off the tap, stop the water running. But if I do that, I can’t do the washing. And I have to do the washing. I can’t–

I can’t let them down. I can’t–

Too loud. I turn off the tap. That will do. The water will do. But there’s too much of it. The water makes it hard to breathe. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. My heart races. It’s pounding so hard, it feels like it will pound its way through my chest. I can feel it there. Pounding. Harder. Faster. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. No breath. My lungs don’t work. My chest is tight. Too tight. Squeezing my heart. I try to suck in air, but my heart is pounding too hard. No air. My arms go number, pins and needles starting at my fingers and racing up my arms like wildfire. All consuming. I can’t–

I can’t stop. I have to get this washing done. Dump the clothes into the sink. Try to act like I can’t–

I can’t do this.

I can’t do this . I just can’t–

I can’t hear the children. Is that good? Are they okay? Should I go check on them? No. I can’t–

I can’t breathe. I can’t–

I can’t stop this. My heart feels funny. Light. Like there’s no air. My eyes are hurting, sucked back into my head, like there’s nothing in the space behind them. No air. No blood. My heart is racing and I can’t–

I can’t feel anything in my arms. I can’t–

I can’t make it stop. I can’t–

I can. I know what this is. It’s just anxiety. It’s just panic. I know what this is. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. I can–

I can’t.

I can’t see . The world is black and grey. Spots of colour. It doesn’t make sense. My arms are numb. My legs. The ground is rolling and I can’t–

I can’t breathe. I need to breathe. Slowly. I need to…

The children are calling. I hear them, but I can’t–

I can’t go out there. I can’t face them. I can’t breathe. The air is too–

The clothes. I need to wash the clothes. I need to feel normal. Dump the clothes in the water. Take a deep breath. Start to wash them. Stop my heart from pounding. Concentrate. Focus. Breathe. In. Out. In Out. I can’t–

I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t face this anymore. I can’t feel. I can’t–

I can.

Wash the clothes. Deep breaths. Calm. I need to calm. I can’t–

I can’t find myself. The weave of the cotton I’m washing is so loose. I can see the gaps between the strands and I slip between them, slip into nothing, disappear. I don’t even exist. I am nothing. My head is full of clouds and water, and the water is in the tub, and the clothes in the water, and there’s nothingness. I am nothingness. I can’t–

I can’t feel myself. I don’t–

I don’t feel–

My eyes hurt. They fill with tears. Are they my eyes? I can’t–

I can’t cry. I can’t breathe. I can’t stop. I can’t–

A child. Talking. His words are noise, so loud, so loud I can’t hear them. I can’t–

I can’t fall down. I can’t give up. I can’t–

I can’t stop. I smile. I nod. I hope the child will go away. I try to breathe. I feel something behind me. A wall. I sink down it and let my head fall and tears fall and life fall and I fall and I can’t–

I can’t.

I can’t.

I can’t move.

Time. I’m on the floor. I don’t know how I get here. How did I get here? My eyes hurt. My chest hurts. My arms are numb and tingle. Time. How much is gone? I run my hands over my skin and it hurts, like needles in my flesh. The light is too bright. It hurts my eyes. I can’t–

I can’t go out there. The lights are too bright. The sounds are too loud. Every touch on my skin is agony. Don’t get too close. Don’t look me in the eye or you might know me, you might see me, you might see I’m not real. I can’t–

I can’t just sit here.

I can’t just sit here forever. I have to move.

My head aches. I feel tired. Empty. Hollow. Like the life has drained out of me.

My breathing evens out. My heartbeat slows.

I stand up and go back to washing the clothes.

I can’t keep doing this.


Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff, Writing

On Writing and Developing Characters

It’s taken me a little while to write this post today. Yesterday’s post was much more intense and (potentially) controversial than usual, and I wasn’t sure how to follow it up. I don’t want to keep talking politics (I’ve said my piece) but I didn’t feel right going into a funny anecdote about my children, either.

So I’ve decided to find some middle ground and talk about writing. Specifically, about the process I’m going through at the moment: Developing my characters.

I talked a bit about my need to revisit my character development a couple of weeks ago, and then touched on some reasons I think it’s important to create fully developed characters at some point during the writing process, whether it’s before you start writing, in the middle of a project (like I’m doing now) or after you’ve finished your first draft. And that’s what I’ve been working on over the last week and a half.

One of the ways to get to know your characters a bit better is to do a ‘Character Interview’. This is where you sit your character down and ask them a whole range of questions — you know, like you do on a first date.

(Disclaimer: It’s a long time since I’ve been on a first date.)

For the non-writer’s in the audience, yes this sounds crazy. Yes, the characters aren’t really real. But trust me, it works.

I’ve had some success with character interviews in the past, but had lost the interview template I used. So I asked around, and was pointed to this awesome character questionnaire. I read it and was hooked.

The quiz has 50 questions in total, although some are really follow-on questions rather than stand-alone ones. I’ve been enjoying putting my characters through their paces on this one, and my husband and I have also used it to get to know some of our RPG characters better.

Click through. Read it. Try it. Let me know what you think.

And in the spirit of fun, I thought I’d share a few of the answers so far. These are answers from a mix of different characters in the urban fantasy novel I’m working on (four different characters are represented here). Hopefully you’ll find some of the answers as amusing and/or interesting as I do.

  1. If you could change anything about yourself…
    • It would be my tusks. They’re… look, it’s not that they’re small. But it never hurts to have bigger ones, right?
  2. What’s your favourite food?
    • My father used to cook me a meal called grautr. It was like… salted porridge with smoked herring. I didn’t like it. Now, it’s the only thing in the world I want to eat. I cooked it for my boyfriend once. He didn’t eat it.
  3. What’s your favourite drink?
    • There’s this Japanese wine that tastes like distilled sunligh– I mean, whiskey. Yeah. Straight up.
  4. Do you have any hobbies?
    • [character 1] Murder, mayhem and motorbikes.
    • [character 2] Don’t laugh, but I collect rocks. I told you not to laugh.
  5. Have you been honest with these questions?
    • Only the unimportant ones.

Do you interview your characters? Do you have a particular set of questions you like to use?


Filed under Writing

Five Reasons to Fully Develop Your Characters

Characters. Can’t live with ’em, can’t write a book without ’em.

In my post about needing Pantsers Anonymous earlier this week, I mentioned that I’d written 60% of my first draft before realising that I didn’t know nearly enough about my protagonist. Not good, right? A few people suggested some great methods for developing characters either before or during writing, and everyone agreed that getting to know your characters is vitally important.

So I got to thinking: How is it that I thought I knew my protagonist, when I really didn’t? How is it that I thought I knew about his motivations, when all I really had was a rough idea that he wanted to be better, stronger, smarter, and more heroic?

That’s when I realised that I had developed his character. To a point. I’d just only concentrated on developing him from the point that interesting things started happening to him.But a fully developed character is so much more than that. A fully developed character is one that we know backwards, forwards and inside out. We may not (and probably shouldn’t) include his/her entire backstory in our writing, but we need to know it.

Here’s why.

1. Because cardboard cut-outs are 2-dimensional.

“Tell me about your character.”

“He’s a taxi driver in New York.”

Surprisingly, that does tell me a fair bit about your character. It tells me his gender, occupation, and location. It paints him as someone who’s seen lots of weird stuff, and probably has nerves of steel. It tells me he’s an adult, and that he probably has a fair bit of life experience. If you add in a couple of descriptive words like ‘grizzled’ or ‘surly’ or ‘dodgy’, I have a pretty good mental image of him. If I had any visual arts skills at all, I could probably draw you a picture of him.

But that’s all it would be: a picture. A 2-dimensional rendering. Because the character has no depth. He has no life outside of taxi driving. He has no goals and no motivations. So he picks up a fare and gets pulled into a situation where he’s got a wounded angel in the back seat and is being chased by blood-thirsty demons intent on destroying the sole creature who can save the world from eternal damnation, you have absolutely no idea how he’ll react.

But develop his character a little more, and suddenly you have a guy who studied comparative religion and philosophy at college, before stumbling across the identities of a number of New York based members of the Illumaniti. He had to go into hiding to save his life, and is working as a taxi driver to earn enough money to keep investigating a secret plot to use demonic powers to control government officials.

Try drawing that on a piece of cardboard!

2. Because he says tomah-to and she says tomay-to.

I was chatting to a friend earlier in the week, and she told me about a book she’s reading at the moment (which will remain nameless). In this particular book, there are two POV characters who narrate the story in alternating chapters. It’s a fairly common method of presenting multiple POVs these days, especially in romance-flavoured books. But my friend isn’t enjoying the structure at all. Why? Because she can never remember which character is narrating at a give time. Their voices are exactly the same.

Regardless of whether you’re writing in 1st or 3rd person, and whether you’ve got one or multiple POVs in your novel, each character should have a distinct voice. You usually shouldn’t need dialogue tags to identify if it’s John or Mary talking. And when you’re dealing with internal dialogue? There should be no question whose head you’re in.

The best way to ensure your characters have distinct voices is to give them distinct personalities, backgrounds, goals, beliefs, and values. And that means spending the time on character development.

3. Because you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

Imagine a teenage boy is standing in front of you. He’s wearing a waiter’s uniform and his name tag says his name is Freddy. He has a gold ring on his left ring finger. His hair is short and neat, and he smiles when he takes your order. But there’s something slightly haunted about his eyes.

Imagine this boy grew up in Manhattan, living in an old brownstone house in Carnegie Hill. His father was a banker, and his mother volunteered for various charities.

Now imagine he grew up in Brooklyn, in a crappy tenement in Cypress Hill. He doesn’t know who his father was, and his mother did whatever it took for her son to go to school and have a better life than she did.

In both bases, the superficial description is the same. But the moment he opens his mouth and starts talking? The moment he has to make a difficult moral choice? That’s when you’ll notice the difference. Because when the chips are down and the stakes are high, the circumstances of his childhood, and the values imparted to him by his parents, will matter.

4. Because the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

No one has an idyllic childhood, then wakes up one day and decides to be a serial killer.

Well, maybe that happens in real life. I don’t know. But in fiction, things have to make sense. In fiction, a cause must come before an effect. In fiction, that serial killer was tortured, tormented and/or abused as a child. Because if she wasn’t, readers won’t buy it.

Every insecurity, ever internal conflict, ever moral dilemma, every hard choice that your character needs to make is only difficult because of something that happened in her past. And if you don’t know anything about her past… Well, how can you possibly figure out what she’s going to do in the future? You’re trying to write an effect without a cause. That doesn’t mean you need to know the cause first — in many cases, it’s easier to work out a character’s past based on what she’s doing in the present. But the trick is to do that consistently. If chapter seven sees her too scared to go into the basement because her step-mother used to lock her in the dark when she was bad, don’t have her willingly going into series of tunnels in chapter three.

5. Because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Everyone is the hero of their own story. Even the villain. The villain in your story probably doesn’t think of himself as a villain. He may be doing villainous things, but he probably thinks that he’s doing them for good reasons. So, if everyone is the hero of their own story, does that mean they all want the same thing?

No. For some people, “winning” means being safe. For others, “winning” means being famous or rich. For still others, “winning” means finding love. (We won’t go into what Charlie Sheen thinks winning means.)

If your hero is going to win the day, you’d better know what he thinks “winning” is all about. Because the guy who desperately wants to find love is probably not going to feel very satisfied if he triumphs over evil, and his reward is a modelling contract.

When do you develop your characters — before or during the writing process? Do you have any tips or suggestions for how to do it effectively?


Filed under Writing

BWF: Building Castles in the Air

Last weekend I was thrilled to attend the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I attended four workshops over three days, talked to established authors, beginning writers and everyone in between,  and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself fully in the art and craft of writing.

The second workshop I attended was Building Castles in the Air with Kate Forsyth. The write-up on the BWF page talked about “creating believable worlds” and the like, and my understanding was that this would be a world about… well, creating believable worlds. World-Building, if you like. As it turns out, that wasn’t the focus at all. The focus was on the broader topic of Writing Fantasy. But I’m not complaining — the actual session was even more amazing than I expected.

Here are my Top 3 take-aways.

1. What do you need to ADD?

In a very broad sense, a story can be broken down to three elements, each with a distinct purpose.

  • ACTION is the engine that drives the plot.
  • DESCRIPTION conjures the world.
  • DIALOGUE adds sparkle, wit and personality.

Kate’s advice was for every page of the story to have at least some of each element. Without action, a scene doesn’t drive the plot forward. Without description, you end up with “talking heads” in nowheresville. And without dialogue, you have no character to your story. So if something doesn’t seem to be working, look over each page and see if there’s anything you need to ADD.

2. What role do your characters play?

Every story has a cast of characters. You can’t even have a story without at least two characters. (Keeping in mind that a “character” doesn’t necessarily need to be human.) While you don’t need to have a character fulfill every potential role, I found it incredibly useful to think about which role my minor characters play and how I can use them to their full potential within that role. Perhaps you will, too.

Potential Cast of Characters:

  • Hero: The protagonist; the most important person in the story.
  • Villain: The antagonist; the second most important person in the story.
  • Sidekick: Often acts as a foil to the hero; may sacrifice himself for the hero.
  • Mentor
  • Friends & Allies
  • Enemies & Cohorts
  • Complication: Someone with no malicious intent who inadvertently makes things harder on the hero.
  • Animal Friend: A “lesser being” who offers unconditional comfort; may sacrifice himself for the hero.
  • Secret Friend: Someone you suspect of working against the hero, who is secretly a friend.
  • Hidden Enemy: Someone you think is a friend, who is secretly working against the hero.

3. What’s your ideal pace?

Amongst all the other great information, Kate talked briefly about pacing. One of the tricks to effectively control the story’s pacing is sentence length.

A full stop (aka: a period, for all you North Americans) = a breath. Back in the early years of learning to read, that’s what we were taught. When you see a full stop/period, you pause in your reading and take a breath. It’s such an ingrained part of our reading that we instinctively do it, even when we’re not reading out loud.

And that is why we’re told to use short sentences during dramatic and action-packed times in our story. Lots of short sentences means lots of full stops. Lots of full stops means faster breathing. Faster breathing means a faster heart rate. Simply by changing the sentence structure, it’s possible to make the reader feel like they’re in a dangerous or high-risk situation.

Alternately, of course, lots of long, slow sentences will slow the reader’s breathing rate and heart rate and lull them into a sense of peace and comfort. 

About Kate Forsyth

Kate Forsyth is the author of 25 books for children, young adults and adults, most of them either Fantasy or Historical Fiction. Her books have been sold in 13 different countries around the world, including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Russia, Japan and Italy, and regularly feature in the fantasy bestselling lists. She is best known for her Witches of Eileanan books, The Gypsy Crown series for children and her time travel adventure, The Puzzle Ring. Her most recent novel for adults is Bitter Greens, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic, true life story of the woman who first told the tale, 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

In real life, Kate is was funny, down-to-earth, pragmatic, and as genuine as it’s possible to get. If you ever have the chance to take a class or workshop with Kate, I urge you to do so. You won’t regret it.

Did you already know these things? Or are they are interesting to you as they are to me?


Filed under Writing

Roleplaying for Writers

Before I went on my leave of absence, I started writing about how role-playing is beneficial to writers. That was prompted by some questions I’d had from people who didn’t understand the correlation between the two subjects. I’ve always intended to get back to the question but this time I will answer it in a single post. *deep breath* Here we go.

What is role-playing, anyway?

Role-playing, at its heart, is a collaborative storytelling experience. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and found yourself thinking, “I would totally have seen that coming.” Or: “If that was me, I would have done something different.”? Congratulations! You know how to role-play.

In a role-playing game, each player takes on the role of a character and plays that character as s/he takes part in a story. The Storyteller (also called GM, DM, etc) is the sole exception to this. The Storyteller designs the plot and plays the role of every non-player character in the story.

(If you’re interested in reading my long, rambling introduction to role-playing games — as well as the experience I had introducing my parents to role-playing — you’ll find it here.)

Playing a Character

Most of the people involved in any role-playing game take on the role of an individual character throughout the story. … What does that actually mean?

1) You develop a character concept, personality and background to suit the genre of the game you’re playing.

My character’s name is Cinderella Daniels. She’s 18 years old, about 5’2″ tall, with mostly dark hair — she’s dyed one stripe a vivid fuchsia. She grew up half with her Mom and half with her Dad. Her parents are quite civil to each other, she just happened to be the result of a one night stand, and her parents don’t have anything else in common. So half of each year she spent time with her Mum in a hippy-type commune just outside San Francisco where they lived on minimal money and spent time skipping school to hand- craft goods to sell to tourists. The other half of each year she spent with her Dad in New York, where she lived in an expensive apartment in Manhattan, went to the finest school, and had everything she could ever ask for. When she graduated high school, both parents expected her to live with them — so she moved to Miami to work out what she wants to do next. Her Dad bought her an apartment and gives her an allowance (much of which she gives to charity) and she volunteers weekends at the local science museum.

2) Once the game begins, you take on the role of your character, responding to the Storyteller and helping craft the story as you go.

Storyteller: You’re walking along the street when you notice a dog staring at you.
Cinderella: I love dogs! I look around to see who owns it.
Storyteller: There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around. The dog’s not wearing a collar or a leash, but it’s definitely watching you.
Cinderella: Poor thing, maybe it’s hungry. I’ll approach it — cautiously, though. I remember one time at Mum’s place when I was 8 or 9, this dog wandered in that looked harmless enough, but attacked everyone who tried to touch it.
Storyteller: As you approach, it starts to wag its tail.
Cinderella: Awww… I hold out my hand and talk to it. “Hello, little doggy. Are you hungry?”
Storyteller: The dog says, “Yeah, I’m starving. You got something to eat in that bag of yours? Maybe a burger? I love burgers. But hold the cheese — lactose, you know?”
Cinderella: Um. Did that dog just talk? I look at the dog. “Did you just talk?” Seriously. I must be going insane. I’m talking to a dog.
Storyteller: The dog tilts its head to the side and whines at you. Then it definitely talks. “Shit. Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not s’posed to scare you.”
Cinderella: I take a few steps backwards. “Noooo…. Not scared. Um. Hi?” 

Playing a character in a role-playing game is quite different to writing a story because you only have control over what your one character does. You don’t control the world, or the plot, or the other characters. It’s up to you to solve the mystery, or catch the killer, or plot to steal all the money in the bank vault of one of the biggest casinos in Vegas using only the skills and knowledge of your character.

Telling Stories

In each game there is one person designated as the Storyteller (DM, GM, et al.). The Storyteller is responsible for designing the plot, describing the world, and playing the roles of minor characters that the main characters come across. … What does that actually mean?

1) Develop a premise, plot, and antagonist to suit the genre of the game you’re playing.

The Morrigan and the Dagda have had a falling out. The Morrigan knows she can’t attack the Dagda directly, but she knows Lugh has a 19 year old child named Cinderella Daniels. Even better, the girl doesn’t know her father is a Celtic God. The Morrigan sets out to have the girl kidnapped, planning to use her as leverage to force Lugh to take her side against the Dagda. Lugh catches wind of this plan, but is unable to get to Cindy, so he sends a dog — a pup sired by his own dog companion, Failinis.

2) Once the game begins, you are the character’s eyes and ears. You take on the role of minor characters and antagonists as they appear, dictate the passing of time, describe the scene, and present the plot — always making sure to give the players space to play their character and make decisions about the direction the story will take.

Being a Storyteller in a role-playing game is quite different to writing a story, because you have no control over what the main characters do. You set up a scene, you provide back-up characters and antagonists, and you react to the characters as they react to your plot. Together, you tell a story.

How Does This Help When Writing?

When you’re writing a story, you take on the role of both the player/s and the Storyteller. You design the premise, plot and antagonists as well as the character/s. Then you build all the elements into a story.

Role-playing lets you practice each of those roles individually, which in turn helps you think about them as individual roles when you’re writing.

Instead of thinking:

Lugh’s dog shows up. It has a brief conversation with Cindy and Cindy agrees to take it back to her place.

I will think:

Storyteller: Lugh has sent his dog to meet up with Cindy. The dog is going to try to convince Cindy to take it home with her and then patrol the house looking for bad guys.

Cinderella (when the dog starts talking): This is totally creepy. There’s no way this dog is coming home with me. Oh, look how cute it is… Okay, it can come home — but it’s not coming inside and I’m taking it to the pound first thing in the morning.

Thinking about the story in this way helps prevent (1) characters from doing things because “it has to happen for the plot”, and (2) unrealistic plot points (based on the world and the antagonists). It helps ensure characters are always acting “in character”, and also forces you to push the boundaries of your plot.

There are a number of other storytelling techniques that I’ve developed and practiced through role-playing — such as setting a mood, rising and falling tension, and building micro-tension — and the “instant feedback” scenario of a group of people reacting to my character and/or storytelling is fantastic. But coming to understand the strong differentiation between plot and character when writing a story is the aspect that has had the largest impact on my writing.

So, all you role-players out there: What aspect of role-playing has had the largest impact on your writing?


Filed under The Inner Geek, Writing

Are your Characters Reactive or Proactive?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been beta reading a YA novel for a good writer friend of mine. After reading the first few of chapters, I  come to the conclusion that I didn’t like the protagonist. In fact, my dislike was such that, if I were reading for enjoyment only, I would have put the book down. My first thought was that the character needed to be made more likeable. However, as I read on, I realised that my response was unfair. And by the time I reached the end of the book, I had come to the conclusion that I was wrong to suggest that the character should be changed in any way.

Did I come to love the character? No. Not at all.

But I did realise why I didn’t like the character.

The protagonist of this purposely unnamed book is purely reactive. The character at no point takes charge, develops a plan, or takes any action that isn’t directly prompted by another character. And, put simply, I don’t like purely reactive characters any more than I like purely reactive people. But that’s not to say that reactive characters are bad. There are plenty of stories with reactive (or even passive) protagonists, and the “passive character takes control of her own life” trope is a very familiar one. It’s just not one that I personally enjoy.

But my enjoyment, or lack thereof, is not a stain on the writing in this YA novel. The protagonist is consistent throughout the story, has a distinctive voice, and is so authentic that I’m pretty sure this person is living their own life in an alternate dimension somewhere. (Or possibly New Zealand.) And, really, isn’t that what we’re all aiming for with our characters: consistency, distinctiveness and authenticity?

My dislike of the character was purely subjective. It’s not up to the author to change the character to suit me.  The only reason the author should consider making any changes is if the intention was to have a proactive rather than reactive character. 

As a writer, sometimes it’s hard to see our characters the same way other people see them. To us, they’re perfect works of art, even more endearing for their faults and flaws. And it can be hard to tell whether they’re being proactive or reactive when there’s a mad slasher or serial killer hunting down all their friends and family (mwah ha ha ha ha!). So, here are some questions you may like to consider if you’d like to determine where in the reactive-proactive spectrum your character fits.

What is your character’s goal before the story starts?

We all know that we should start a story as close to the action as possible, right? But we also all know that if we start too close to the action (in media res, as it were), there’s a chance we’ll alienate readers who have no reason to care whether our young Jedi is captured and tortured by the Empire. So what is your character like in his normal life?

If he’s sitting around waiting to see what life throw at him, or he spends all his time following in the footsteps of his friends and family, or is drifting aimlessly through life without a goal or plan (apparently waiting for a story to begin), there’s a pretty good chance he’s more reactive than proactive.

But if the character is working to achieve a goal, whether or not it’s story-related, he’s more likely to be a proactive character.

Note: This goal doesn’t have to be something big like “to save the world” (or even “to destroy the world”). It could be something as simple as “to get good grades so I can get into college” or “to be the prettiest girl at the Prom” or “to hit the target at the firing range”. The key here is that the character is taking action to achieve his goal, not waiting for it to happen through divine intervention or good old-fashioned luck.

What does your character do during down-time?

Almost every novel has it: down-time. That moment between the adrenalin-fuelled car chase and the point where the slasher leaps out of the tree-line and drags the protagonist’s boyfriend into the undergrowth. It’s a chance for the characters (and the reader) to take a deep breath and process everything that’s just happened. It’s often the point where characters share information, or plot their next move, or take advantage of the lull in death-dealing to “celebrate the wonder of life”. (Cue the sleazy electric guitar.)

So, how does your character behave in the lull? If she takes the opportunity to sit quietly and cry, or goes along with someone else’s suggestion, or her entire plan revolves around waiting to see what happens next, she’s probably a reactive character.

A proactive character is likely to be the one leading the conversation, making plans that include the theme (if not the words) “the best defence is a good offense”, or even taking the opportunity to return to her pre-story goals: “Yes, I know there’s a mad slasher out there. But if I don’t cleanse and moisturise every day, Laura Pringle will look hotter than me at the dance and I’ll never live it down!”

How does your character make choices?

A good story always involves hard choices. Perhaps they don’t seem hard from the outside, but in the character’s mind, they’re huge: “Do I go to the D&D Convention with my friends like I do every year, or go to the Country Club with my cousin in the hopes that I’ll see the girl of my dreams?”  Sometimes the choices are life-altering. Sometimes they’re story-altering. And sometimes they seem to have no bearing on the story… until they do. “Wait, you mean if I’d chosen Strawberry topping, you wouldn’t have torched my car? Damn it! I don’t even like chocolate!” So, when faced with a decision, how does your character decide?

A reactive character is more likely to do what’s “easiest” or “more immediate”. If choosing between two love interests, the reactive character will go with the one in front of him right now. Or the one who tries the hardest to woo him. Or the one that his friends tell him he should go with. Alternately, he won’t make a choice at all — at least, not until he’s either forced to do so by outside events (“Declare your undying love for me, or I’ll start drowning kittens! “) or one of the options is removed (“Now that Laura is dead, you have to love me!”).

A proactive character will make a choice. It may not be the right choice (and often isn’t), but it’s a choice nonetheless: “I’ve considered my options and have decided that I’m really in love with the evil, but incredibly sexy, vampire, and not the sweet girl-next-door who’s always been there for me. How could anything possibly go wrong?”

How does your character resolve the story?

At the end of the book, the plot and character arcs should (ideally) all tie themselves up into a delightful little thing we call a “resolution”, leaving minimal loose threads hanging around for people to trip over. This generally comes straight after the final conflict (or climax) of the story. So, what’s your character’s role in all of this?

A) What do you mean “role”? She’s too busy hiding behind the cupboard desperately hoping the police arrived in time to save her from the pushy hat-salesman to actually do anything. 

B) Her role is to get captured so the antagonist can give his well-prepared monologue. Then she begs for her life, but the antagonist ignores her. Then her boyfriend/the police show up and save her, capturing the bad guy and high-fiving each other all the while. But it’s not really a plan, it’s just what happens.

C) It depends. What does everyone else think her role should be?

D) Fed up with being chased around the College Campus like a rat through a maze, she plots out a Scooby-Doo-esque trap, using herself as bait, and lures the bad guy into an abandoned warehouse where she drops a cage on him, coats him in honey, and releases the dogs with bees in their mouths. Sadly it all goes horribly wrong and the dogs end up being stung by honey-coated bees, but it’s the thought that counts. And then she confronts him mano-a-womano.

Hint: Only one of these is proactive. And it’s even better if you can tie in your proactive character’s starting goal with the final confrontation: “See, I am the prettiest girl here! Take that Magic Mirror!”

In Conclusion…

I’m not saying that proactive characters are better than reactive characters. (Although I am saying that I subjectively prefer proactive characters.) Just make sure that the character that ends up on paper is the same one that runs around screaming obscenities inside your head.

Oh… is that just me?

Leave me your comments, thoughts, or random abuse (if you disagree with me).


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